By Sylvia Barron
Latinas in the United States have a lot to celebrate in terms of ever-increasing educational and professional opportunities. Without a doubt, our daughters enjoy greater rights and liberties than our mothers did in this country. But a recent government study reveals that Hispanic girls in the United States are seriously lagging behind their non-Hispanic counterparts in one critical area - declining the rate of teen pregnancy.
In the United States, the teen birth rate has dropped by 20 percent since 1989. Teen pregnancy had declined by 25 percent in the black community, and 15 percent in the white population. Yet, Latinas have only experienced a 7 percent reduction in the teen birth rate. Among Mexican-American teens, the birth rate actually increased a bit.
As a Latina, I fully understand the cultural importance of family. As the mother of four grown sons, I also appreciate the joys of parenthood. That said, I also know that teen pregnancy is bad news for young Latinas. Of course, there are some young women who rise to the occasion and surmount the obstacles that teen parenting presents. But generally speaking, teens - Latina or otherwise - are at a serious disadvantage when they become mothers too early in life.
Is it impossible to for teen mothers to finish high school, attend college and have a rewarding career? Of course not. But teen motherhood sure makes life tougher than it has to be. The teen years should be spent learning about oneself, discovering the world and developing long-term goals. There is plenty of time in adulthood for the rich rewards of mothering.
There are several reasons teens become pregnant. First, lack of information about abstinence and contraception. Second, a lack of information about alternatives to sexual activity.
Three years ago Planned Parenthood launched a voluntary after school program aimed at reducing pregnancy rates among high-risk youth. Sisters Together Acting Responsibly (STAR) has attracted girls from every race and ethnicity, but has been exceptionally popular among Hispanic girls. Educators discuss anatomy and contraception, but more importantly, they focus on the benefits of delaying sexual activity. How do they do this? Simply by offering other, more positive, options. Successful women are guest speakers and role models who talk to the girls about their careers, and what it took to achieve their goals.
During the question and answer session, we often hear the girls say that they had no idea that a certain career path was even an option. Or, if they did know about a job, they didn't understand the steps that needed to be taken to qualify them for the position. When young people have long-terms goals, they tend to make responsible choices about delaying sexual activity. When they have a vision for their future, girls realize what is at stake when they act recklessly.
Another important component of the STAR program is empowering girls with the tools to say no to sex. It's great to tell girls they should thwart the advances of their hormone-crazed boyfriends; it's even better to show them how. Educators role-play with the girls and use every line in the Lothario's Manual to Seduction. Then, they show them how to say no - and mean it.
While the program promotes abstinence as the wisest choice for teens, we also realize that 75 percent of young people will become sexually active by the time they graduate high school. Therefore, it is imperative that we teach them about birth control and disease prevention. Some may argue that teaching young people about condom use is a tacit endorsement of teen sex.
Not so. We absolutely, positively always stress that the only way to guarantee that they will not contract a sexually transmissible infection or become pregnant is to abstain from sex. But in the age of AIDS, condom use can mean the difference between life and death. Withholding potentially life-saving information from teens is immoral, we believe.
The recent government study that found the Latina birth rate is not declining at the same speed as that of other populations is disappointing. But it also provides us with an opportunity to improve the future of our community by supporting more programs like STAR.
Sylvia Barron is the director of binational affairs at Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties.